By the time the Law Society changed its position on the admission of women to the legal profession, at a special meeting in March 1919, there is a sense from the debates in its council and in parliament that the fight had gone out of those opposing admission.
Speeches against were in the minority, and pro-admission votes in council and parliament were convincing majorities for supporters of equality. That picture held true for the rest of 1919.
But attitudes had not changed overnight, and as the legal profession headed towards the bar on admission being lifted, two excerpts from the Solicitors Journal (SJ) 1919 give a flavour of the world into which the first women lawyers were set to step.
The first is the SJ’s editorial comment, 21 June 1919. On the Barristers and Solicitors (Qualification) Bill, SJ noted: ‘We imagine there is little doubt that it will pass.’ (It was, of course, displaced by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill/Act).
That being the case, SJ’s editor switches to ruminative mode, referencing an article by ‘Miss (we think we have that right) H Newton Walker’ writing in ‘the current number of the Englishwoman’.
He continues: ‘She concludes a very interesting article on “Women and the Bar” by saying, “As a general rule success at the Bar is only obtained as a result of considerable industry, perseverance, and ability.” But this is to put it mildly. For a fortunate few – if they have influence to back them – the adjective “considerable” may be enough; but for men who only have their own efforts to look to, a much stronger word is necessary, and to unlimited industry and perseverance – we need not labour the ability – must be added unfailing health.
Can I detect the voice of a member of the SJ editorial team who tried, and failed, at the Bar? I have no way of knowing. Anyway, he goes on: ‘It is possible there are women who will come up to the standard in all these respects, and even with less rigorous qualifications they may attain a fair measure of success, but this is for the future to shew. Miss Walker gives a very readable sketch of the course which women who aim at admission to the Bar will have to go through.’
The final section of Walker’s article quoted seems chosen for mockery: ‘There is little doubt that the extremely pleasant conditions which already exist will be made even more enjoyable by the social intercourse of both sexes, and it may even happen that the Inns will become a much more prominent feature of the social life of the country.’
The second excerpt is from the 19 July 1919 issue – an account of the council vote to admit women to its classes and lectures. Speaking against, council member JW Reid was recorded as saying the following: ‘He thought there were certain professions into which, clearly and obviously, it was not wise to admit women. Taking, for example, the Army and the Navy… They were fighting professions, and the solicitors’ was to a certain extent a fighting profession, and, as far as that was concerned, it might be very unfortunate disaster if they brought into the profession, with its unfortunate liabilities to fight, the opposite sex.’
A lack of relevant experience does not, by his own admission, seem to have held JW Reid back in opposing the motion: ‘He did not pretend to have a very great experience in Judges’ Chambers at the present times. It used to be called the “Bear Garden”, and [he] hoped that there might not be found there in a very short time a great many she bears to set up a fight between man and woman in matters of law. It would be a very great misfortune.’
In commissioning history articles for the Gazette’s Women in the Law page, I have been working with academics who share my view that one should be wary about likening present experience to past events.
The thrill of going to contemporary sources is that though dead, they can seem to bring the past alive. That is of course their danger. But it is interesting to note that RW Reid’s attitude to women in litigation is identical to that experienced by women of my generation (born in the 1970s) who were advised that women should not go into litigation because they would not be ‘aggressive’ enough – and that by the way could they also wear skirts instead of trousers.
We are, at the very least, still standing in the a partial shadow cast by Reid and his contemporaries.